Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Autobiography of Malcolm X Analysis
Malcolm X was one of the most prominent and charismatic black spokesmen for civil and human rights in the United States during the 1960’s. He has been attacked by his critics as a black separatist, an advocate of violence rather than passive resistance in response to white racism, and a single-issue demagogue who had a gift for polemic yet lacked a constructive plan for social change. His supporters championed him as a man of absolute integrity, completely fearless in his personal commitment to expose the roots of American racism, to “tell it like it is.” He was among the most enigmatic black leaders during the crucial years of the Civil Rights movement, for both his personal life and his social philosophy were marked by drastic and continuous changes.
In the course of the autobiography, Malcolm interjects his personal philosophy on many issues. He viewed the American political and economic system as designed to keep the black man suppressed and the white man rich. He abhorred the absence of moral courage among both blacks and whites. He championed the need for instilling in Afro-Americans (a term which he came to prefer after his trips to Africa) a sense of dignity based on pride in their heritage, as well as encouraging them to demand, “freedom, justice, and equality, . . . at any price.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X represents Malcolm’s view of his life as one of response to changes which were most often the result of his conflict with white society. Thus it is difficult to fix Malcolm’s perspective on the central social issues which he criticizes in the autobiography, for his perspective evolved as he matured. Still, the principal issues confronting him were prejudice and racism in the United States. His views of the undeniable effects which racism had on blacks in America can be summarized as follows. First, blacks were forced into segregated communities, which most often meant ghetto housing—breeding grounds for crime and violence. Second, through overt and covert means they were denied ownership of the means of production of wealth and thus were economically suppressed. Third, blacks were systematically denied access to the political process; disenfranchised, they had no opportunity to exercise their basic right to change the system. Last, most religions, particularly Christianity as preached by the white man, deceived the black man into accepting his slavery.
In response to the social, political, and religious oppression of blacks, Malcolm proposed violent responses to effect immediate change, for violent responses seemed appropriate to rectify violent evils. Despite his early black separatist views, many observers have thus placed Malcolm in a long tradition of American social revolutionaries because he was equally concerned with basic human rights—the universal values of freedom, justice, equality, and dignity for all men. Malcolm maintained that these rights are due all people “at any price.” “The price of freedom is death,” he stated shortly before his own death. In Malcolm’s view, any individual or institution which denied these rights to any man should be destroyed, even by violence if necessary.
In addition to the central issues of racism and human rights, there are several deeper issues broached in the work which serve to broaden its appeal to readers: the importance of assessing one’s life honestly; the need to be open-minded, adaptable, and prepared to change one’s view in the face of irrefutable facts; the importance of education, especially self-education as it applies to immediate, individual needs.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the autobiography is the sense one has of Malcolm’s intense need to be honest, to tell the raw truth about American society as he saw it. Never fearful of the possible consequences of offending either the majority or the minority, Malcolm often offended both. For example, the Jewish community accused him of anti-Semitism because of his attacks on Jewish businessmen in Harlem who owned most of the real estate and profited from the black man’s labor. His response to such attacks was characteristically blunt: “If I tell the simple truth, it does not mean that I am anti-Semitic; it means merely that I am anti-exploitation.”
Related in a provocative, narrative style, the autobiography is a curious mix of personal anecdotes, polished rhetoric often bordering on polemic, and historical commentary reflecting his broad reading of classical and modern works. The influence of Aesop’s fables, for example, is apparent both in the cautionary tales from his youth and in the vivid animal imagery used to describe the white man (as wolf, fox, and vulture). His early rhetoric, charged with the cadence and slang of the Harlem streets, evolves in the course of the work, becoming increasingly philosophical and measured as he matures. The last few chapters are devoted to a careful explanation of the impact of his own experiences in the development of his vision for the future of black America. Because Malcolm essentially dictated his story to Alex Haley over the course of several years with the agreement that nothing Malcolm said would be left out, and nothing he did not say would be included, the language has a vigorous dialectical style. The reader often feels as though Malcolm is speaking directly and individually to him, a style which belies the author’s self-taught “baptism into public speaking” in prison.